Citizenship Education in Religious Schools: An Analysis of Tolerance in Catholic Schools from a Virtue Ethical Point of View

Author(s): Frank Willems, Eddie Denessen, Chris Hermans, and Paul Vermeer

Source: Willems, Frank, Eddie Denessen, Chris Hermans, and Paul Vermeer. 2010. “Citizenship Education in Religious Schools: An Analysis of Tolerance in Catholic Schools from a Virtue Ethical Point of View.” Journal of Beliefs and Values 31(2): 215-229.


Civic education may become more pressing as religious and cultural diversity increases in Western societies. Learning civic skills in schools, including the capacity to relate to and interact with people from different cultures and ethnicities, has the potential to contribute to the good of the larger community. By socializing students in a single faith tradition, can religious schools play a positive role in the formation of civic virtues? A recent theoretical article considers this question.

A Virtue Ethical Perspective
Willems and colleagues examine this question from a virtue ethical perspective. This approach assumes that virtues are acquired in the context of a community with specific conceptions about the good and with structured norms and values that allow children to experience a sense of belonging. According to this definition, religious schools should be ideal places to cultivate virtues. In response to whether religious schools can foster civic virtues—virtues held by the larger community—Willems and colleagues argue that the theory of virtue ethics encompasses life as a whole, with a key question of “how should I live?” which guides a life of actions rather than a single action. They view civic virtues as traits of character, involving the motives and emotions of the individual, and suggest that religious schools may be ideal places to foster these traits as they are also habits of being.

An Example: Tolerance and Catholic Schools
To further explore these ideas, Willems and colleagues consider a virtue in relation to a religious school context. They choose the virtue of tolerance, defined as the ability to respect others’ differences of opinion, keep from interfering with their choices and actions, and be open to dialogue. In the Catholic school context, Catholic social teaching emphasizes the dignity of the human person and the importance of the larger community, the common good. If teachers model and instill these beliefs in their teaching and classrooms, it follows that students will learn to treat others with respect, even those who are different or disagree with them. Because of their beliefs regarding the individual and the community, the authors view Catholic schools as having the capability to foster tolerance.

Recommendations for Religious Schools
Civic formation in religious schools is not a given, however, and Willems and colleagues offer four recommendations to assist religious schools in civic virtue formation: 1) create a moral community, 2) set a moral example, 3) organize moral practices to assist students in practicing the virtue, and 4) organize moral conversations in which students are challenged to think, draw conclusions, and make decisions about actions.

Ideas to Consider
While there might be concerns about whether religious schools can really foster civic virtue in students, the authors suggest that, theoretically, there is no reason why this shouldn’t be the case. The authors do acknowledge that it needs to be tested empirically. They also make an important point regarding civic education: all schools must take an active role in forming students as citizens. While religious ideals and a religious school environment may offer fruitful seeds for civic engagement, how the school and teachers foster these virtues is ultimately of greatest importance in the civic education of students.

Keywords: virtue ethics, tolerance, citizenship education

Sector: Catholic,  Evangelical Protestant,  Jewish,  Muslim,  Other Protestant

Outcomes: Civil and Political,  Cultural Impact,  Morality and Character Formation

Date Posted: 2014-01-13